Birthplace: Prairie Ronde, MI
Location of death: Baltimore, MD
Cause of death: Natural Causes
Remains: Buried, Mound Cemetery, Racine, WI
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Activist, Religion
Party Affiliation: Democratic
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Lady preacher and suffragette
Olympia Brown was refused admission to University of Michigan because of her gender, and instead attended Mount Holyoke College and Antioch University. She decided to become a preacher, because she wanted to counter the prevalent and, she believed, erroneous "doctrine of endless punishment" offered by traditional hellfire-and-brimstone ministers. She had to argue to gain admittance to the Universalist Divinity School at St. Lawrence University, where she became the first female graduate of a mainstream theological school. In 1863, when she was posted as minister to a congregation in Weymouth Landing, Massachusetts, she was the only female granted full clergy status in any mainstream Christian denomination. Almost as soon as she arrived in Massachusetts, she became active in the women's suffrage movement.
She was later posted at a church in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where circus master P. T. Barnum was in her congregation. When she married in 1873, she kept her maiden name -- something considered controversial at the time. Her husband, John Henry Willis, was also a staunch feminist, and after his death twenty years later she said, "I could have married no better man. He shared in all my undertakings." She did not, however, have such support from her Connecticut congregation, where a traditionalist faction sought to have her removed from the pulpit during her first pregnancy.
She was unemployed for two years, before accepting a post at the struggling Church of the Good Shepherd in Racine, Wisconsin, which had been without a regular minister for several years. At Racine, she granted female church members equal voting rights on church matters, brought in such guest speakers as Susan B. Anthony, Julia Ward Howe, Mary Livermore, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and became a popular and respected local leader. In 1887 -- just after her father's death -- she switched her life's priorities, becoming a part-time minister and a full-time activist for women's rights.
She served as Vice President of the National Woman Suffrage Association, founded the Federal Suffrage Association in 1892 (which became the Federal Equality Association), and she became one of the first members of the more radical and confrontational Woman's Party when it was formed by Alice Paul in 1913. She was one of the last of the "old time suffragettes" who lived to see women granted voting rights in 1919. After casting her first ballot in 1920 at the age of 85, she became active in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Her church in Racine has since been renamed Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church.
Father: Asa Briggs Brown (b. 1808, d. 1887)
Mother: Lephia Olympia Brown (b. 1811, d. 1900)
Husband: John Henry Willis (newspaper editor, m. Apr-1873, d. 1893)
Son: Henry Parker Willis (professor of Finance at Columbia, b. 1874, d. 1937)
Daughter: Gwendolyn Brown Willis (teacher, b. 1876)
University: Mount Holyoke College (attended 1854-55)
University: BA, Antioch University (1860)
Theological: St. Lawrence University (1863)
Women's International League for Peace and Freedom
Author of books:
Woman's Suffrage (1907)
Democratic Ideals (1917)
Suffrage and Religious Principle: Speeches and Writings of Olympia Brown (1988, posthumous)
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